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Magnificent Cautionary Work
on February 20, 2012
Charles Murray is one of the most distinguished and insightful social scientists of our time. His work over the past few decades has systematically and methodically probed into some of the most consequential and momentous societal and policy issues. Unfortunately, due to the highly politicized and contentious nature of many of such topics, he and his work have been subject to some very severe and withering criticism over the years. It's a testament to Murray's courage, integrity, and intellectual honesty that he stuck to his guns and pursued his research and intellectual interest, often paying a pretty high price in his professional career.
"Coming Apart" is intended as Murray's valedictory. It's a book that crowns his professional career, recapitulates certain points and topics that have long been at the center of his interest, and offers his views of what the future may hold - both for the society and for the research into these issues. It is also a sequel of sorts to "Losing Ground", Murray's seminal 1980s book that explored the consequences (intended and unintended) of various welfare policies between the 1960s and 1980s. That book has pretty much launched Murray's career as a public intellectual, making his influence well beyond the academic and scholarly circles. "Coming Apart" explores the consequences of those same policies over the period of another thirty years of their implementation, ending roughly around the year 2010.
The first two parts of the book are primarily scholarly and descriptive. Here Murray lays down the facts in a very straightforward and informative way. He has always been incredibly adroit at presenting even the most arcane social science data in a way that makes them seem almost effortlessly intuitive. Using all the statistical and methodological tools that are at his disposal, Murray paints a very grim picture of the drastic divergence of the classes in American society. In order to avoid the false impression that the class division is in fact the racial division, Murray concentrates primarily on the divergence of the "white" classes in America. At a later point in the book he actually includes the figures for other ethnic group, but only to make the overarching point that the class divergence has very little to do with the racial and ethnic factors. Murray concentrates primarily on cultural and sociological measures in which the classes have grown apart, such as out-of-wedlock births, religious attendance, etc. One of the more interesting pieces of insight in this book was that, aside from the few large metropolitan areas (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco), the elite neighborhoods are in fact very evenly split along the cultural and political lines.
The last part of the book is largely discursive and polemical in nature. Here Murray tries to give his own interpretation of the social forces that have driven America apart over the course of the past half a century. His overwhelming message is that America needs to go back to instilling its "founding virtues" in order return to the kinds of social cohesion and solidarity that was prevalent until the 1960s. (He indirectly blames LBJ for the start of the decline, although he never spells this outright.) The four virtues that he has in mind in particular are industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. I particularly give him credit for including the latter two, especially considering that most libertarians have largely avoided (at best) promoting them. This is one of the main reasons why I have long held Murray in the highest esteem when it comes to discussing policy and social issues.
The founding virtues have in fact never gone out of fashion, and are significantly much more likely to be practiced by the wealthy educated elites than they are by the rest of the society, particularly those in the "underclass." This is very unfortunate, as these virtues are exactly what had enabled many of those in elite circles to obtain their high status. For this state of affairs Murray blames in large part the cultural norms of "inclusivity" and "acceptance," where it has become unfashionable to think that certain cultural norms and behaviors are, in fact, better in every meaningful sense. In Murray's words, it is high time for the elites to start preaching what they practice.
Even though this book is filled with a lot of sobering and depressing statistics, the saddest part for me was in the acknowledgment section. Murray refrained from mentioning ANY of the social scientists that he had consulted while researching and writing this book, because this could prove extremely harmful to their academic careers. It is a really sad that someone who I consider the foremost intellectual giant of our time has to be treated as toxic in the highest intellectual circles. It further highlights how much more someone of far lesser stature must be thought of as unpalatable by the same academics.
This is an outstanding, magnificent work that ought to be read by anyone interested in public policy and the cultural forces that are driving Americans away from each other.